Knoxville’s Central High School and L&N STEM Academy battle each other in a match that airs Jan. 17 at 5:30 p.m. on East Tennessee PBS. Pictured for Central: Caleb Pratt, Cian Bell, Hanson Lam and McKenzie England. For L&N STEM Academy: Nicholas Lester, Zach Medley, Emannuel Sosa-Cruz and Alexander Yarkhan. Photo courtesy of East Tennessee PBS

The NCAA has its “Final Four,” the last quartet of teams vying for a basketball championship. The East Tennessee PBS Scholars Bowl has what its producer calls the “Fortuitous Four,” acknowledging the luck and chance that go into winning the bowl when teams are so closely matched and each so hungry to win.

The 2018 East Tennessee PBS Scholars Bowl begins Jan. 8 and airs each weekday at 5:30 p.m. for 12 weeks (until March 30). This year the bowl fields 57 teams from 47 schools in East Tennessee and southeastern Kentucky (10 schools sent two teams each). The winning team walks away with the Frank Miller Memorial Trophy, plus $1,000 in prize winnings and a $500 stipend for the coach.

The late Frank Miller founded the Scholars Bowl in 1984, became the executive producer, and stayed involved even after his retirement from the station in 2011. For the last two years Ernie Roberts has handled the head production duties. Roberts and the on-air host, local media personality Frank Murphy, have introduced a few modern tweaks to the show while keeping the aspects that make it a broadcasting favorite.

East Tennessee Scholars Bowl executive producer Ernie Roberts confers with on-air host Frank Murphy. Photo courtesy of Frank Murphy.

Roberts is also the host of “Mathline,” a call-in show in which he helps area students tackle numbers and concepts. He also has a part-time gig at Bearden High School, where he was a much-loved math teacher and Key Club advisor before his busy “retirement.”

The shows were filmed in October and November, and Roberts was responsible for the logistics of getting teams from all over into the studio for matches with the least amount of inconvenience to the families and the schools. Roberts hopes to grow the bowl to 64 teams, a true bracket, in future years.

Frank Murphy, who is a well-known local radio personality and comedian, says this gig is one of his favorites.

“When I was a kid, I used to dream about hosting a game show,” he says. His own son was part of the Knoxville Catholic High School team of 2008.

Many of the competitors are nervous, and Murphy uses his skills in improvisation to draw them out into conversation before a match.

“Frank does a wonderful job of engaging them,” Roberts says.

It takes a village to create the series – not just the personnel who do the lighting and sound and camera work – but also those who help create the questions, including longtime contributor Brenda Carnes, who comes up with at least 100 current events questions each year. This year recently retired Bearden art teacher Stan Hillard has provided questions for a new art history category.  There is also an impressive cadre of judges, including retired university professors, secondary school teachers, and others. Sponsors include Pellissippi State Community College and PetSafe.

Roberts says it is important that it not be a “trivia” contest but something that really enhances the knowledge of the students and the audience.

The format is a single-loss elimination. “One and done,” Roberts says. “That is tough.”

What makes a winner? Usually the team with the most diversity of knowledge – you can’t send a team that’s made up of only mathletes to answer history and literature questions.

That said, Roberts and Murphy say the victories remain unpredictable right to the end.

“We had a lot of close games,” Roberts says, including some overtime. “It makes for good TV.”

Info: www.easttennesseepbs.org.

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Written by Tracy Haun